HIV Epidemic in the South Reaches Crisis Proportion

November 29, 2011

The Southeastern United States is experiencing the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS infections, says the executive summary of a research report released by The Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative (SASI).

The report takes a close look at nine southern states that have been particularly hard hit by the epidemic in recent years: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and (East) Texas.

“With the highest rates of both new HIV diagnoses and HIV-related deaths in the country, as well as poor social determinants of health and high poverty rates, the South faces an urgent need for resources to fight the epidemic now,” said Carolyn McAllaster, director of the Duke AIDS Legal Project and SASI project director. “We cannot afford to be complacent.”

“In Mississippi, the dangers of being exposed as HIV-positive cannot be exaggerated and social stigma is enormous, leading to frequent, systemic and unlawful discrimination,” according to Linda Rigsby, Mississippi Center for Justice health law director. “Without greater legal protections and improved enforcement of privacy and civil rights statutes, Mississippians living with HIV/AIDS will continue to have their rights violated and be denied access to the services and treatments they need.”

Mississippi Center for Justice is working to expand HIV treatment services to include access to lawyers who can offer people living with HIV and AIDS assistance to fight discrimination in housing, employment and access to healthcare.

SASI was launched earlier this year by the Duke AIDS Legal Project to advocate for increased federal resources to stop the spread of HIV in the South.

According to newly released research commissioned by SASI and compiled by the Duke Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research, 35 percent of new HIV infections in 2009 were in the targeted states, which contain only 22 percent of the U.S. population. Mississippi is one of eight southern states with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. The targeted states also lead the nation in new AIDS diagnoses rates.

In Mississippi, African-Americans make up 78 percent of new HIV diagnoses, although they constitute only 37 percent of the population. The death rate from HIV/AIDS is ten times higher for African-Americans than for whites.

Nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of death due to HIV in the country are in the South, according to the report. All nine states targeted in the report are among the 15 states with the highest death rates. Mississippi is one of these states.

The data also indicates that 99.5 percent of people on waiting lists for the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs live in the South.

SASI and the Duke Center will make the full report available in December.

SASI is a broad-based coalition of HIV/AIDS Advocates and their supporters led by the Duke AIDS Legal Project and a steering committee of HIV/AIDS experts from nine southern states. With support from the Ford Foundation, SASI is developing research-based policy and strategy recommendations to call attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis faced by Southern states and to advocate for increased federal resources.

The Duke AIDS Legal Project, which has been providing free legal assistance to low-income HIV-infected clients since 1996, offers law students the opportunity to develop practical lawyering skills through direct representation of clients under close attorney supervision. The project’s activities are conducted as part of the school’s academic mission and do not represent an official endorsement or policy of Duke University.

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Attached: Executive Summary by Duke Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research

See www.aidslegalproject.org and www.southernaidsstrategy.org.